Alan’s Pet Peeves In Writing

 The Lost Question

“Am I time travelling?”

“Look at the man in the red shoes.”

Next time someone asks you for a pen, instead of responding with the tried and tested “yes” or “no” why not try out this little ditty:

“All will become clear. Just you wait.” *evil smirk*

What’s that? Is the person who asked just standing there, mildly perplexed and perturbed? Well that’s because you haven’t answered their question, dummy! You’ve just said a random string of ambiguous words! What kind of person would do that?

That’s right, you’re dealing with what I like to call “The Lost Question”. It’s not there to be answered, it’s there to show the audience what they’re meant to care about. And just because your lead is talking to the one person who knows the answer, that doesn’t mean they’ll press the issue. No, no, on hearing that “you’re not asking the right questions” they’ll just stare away wistfully until Michael Giacchino’s violins drown out the incessant thump of curiosity pounding at the inside of their skulls.

Lost could have ended in six episodes if someone had just shaken Ethan Rom until the answers fell out of his pockets.

The Drama Cut

“I have to tell you who killed Millicent, RIGHT NOW.”

*cut to coffee shop*

“You were saying?”

Now anyone who’s familiar with fiction, and especially television, knows that people hate dialogue. Because it’s where characters emote, make strong choices, and realise things without blowing something up – all antipathies to the world of modern story-telling.

So next time you’ve desperately got to tell Barbara that her son is trapped in a well, why not wait until you get to the gym, or the school, or the fire station, before you finish that sentence? Because it’ll make it seem like things are moving forward, and give you the opportunity to run into other characters! Never mind that you and Barbara presumably spent the car ride to the gym talking about Pantene while the question of her son’s fate hung in the air.

The Misunderstanding

*LaTreese listens at door*

“…is that I love you…”

“Oh my God, TreShawn loves her, not me!”

*runs away*

“…is what I would say to her, if she were here. But she’s not. Heavens, my sentences are constructed very oddly.”

We’ve all been there. You overhear a sentence fragment, and because your PhD in linguistics allows you to extrapolate meaning from the Rosetta Stone that is one phrase eavesdropped through four feet of concrete, you immediately know that your man be cheatin’ on you.

You run out of the building, with a 60% chance that it’ll be into the path of an oncoming car – driven by the most innocent character in your show.

The Ultimatum

“You lied to me, Jod. How can I ever trust you again?”

“It was just a cheesecake–“

“It’s what it represented!”

*runs into path of oncoming car*

There’s nothing people in drama like more than easy answers. Lying is unforgivable, cheating is a deal-breaker, and there is absolutely no such thing as “maybe” loving someone.

So when you live in a world that’s so simple, it’s great to just throw out ultimatums (ultimata?) william-nilliam. I don’t necessarily have a problem with people thinking that they live in a world where ultimatums are real – it’s just that when they renege on these feelings four episodes later they don’t acknowledge that they’re ditching some very strong words. Great reneged ultimata of our time include:

– Joey Potter swearing to never, ever forgive Dawson after she shopped her Dad to the cops

– Carrie knowing it was over the last time she slept with Mr. Big (at the end of Sex & The City’s first season)

– Every single thing anyone has ever said in 90210

In the “reneged ultimata that were acknowledged” category I would include nice moments like Buffy’s seventh season admission that she would let Dawn die if the world depended on it. She believed that nothing was more important than her sister’s life at the end of season five, she didn’t in mid-season seven. But, crucially, this was because she had changed. Exception to the rule, though.

So let me say this – if I see a show use a fake ultimatum, I will never, ever watch that show again.

And Reneged Ultimata is the name of my band.

The Needless Needless Death

“It’s going to blow in 20 seconds! You have to shut the door! There’s no time for me to get over there! See? Now it’s going to blow in 15 seconds! You’re the whole way over there! I’ll never make it… it’s too far… I only have 8 seconds! Close the door! Do it… 5… 4… what do you mean I could have used this time to run over–“

*reactor blows*

Death isn’t easy. I don’t mean grief, I mean writing. There have been some amazing deaths in television, from (SPOILERS) Mrs. Landingham to Joyce Summers to the three-tier wedding cake of death done well that was the Six Feet Under finale, but often they are wasted opportunities or too covered in schmaltz to work.

But sacrificial deaths are a whole other ball game. I shudder every time I see a character die to save others, because 80% of the time you can logic your way out of the situation. Whether it’s (SPOILERS) Charlie from Lost, Topher from Dollhouse, or countless amounts of characters in the Doctor Who franchise, it usually takes about five seconds of thinking to realise that we could have all gotten out of this one alive. And, crucially, that in another episode or with another character they would have gotten out alive.

The truth is that sacrificial deaths rarely if ever happen in real life. But if you’re going to insist on using them, at least make them airtight. Like that room Charlie locked himself out of.


About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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